Importance of Citizen Science - Q&A with Mary Ellen Hannibal


By Chris Lim

Calling all citizens! Calling all scientists! What about citizen scientists?! Yes, anyone can be a citizen scientist, even you. 

Central Coast Salmon Enhancement is starting two new citizen science programs: Crowd Hydrology and DIG! Pismo clams. For more information, click on the names, and sign up here for the latest information on each program, including when they’ll be ready for the public. 

To help kick off these programs, we reached out to Mary Ellen Hannibal, author of the new book, Citizen Scientist, Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction. Her other books include The Spine of the Continent and regular contributions to Bay Nature Magazine and The San Francisco Chronicle. Some of her awards and fellowships, include the National Society of Science Writer’s Science and Society Award and Stanford University’s Knight-Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism. Mary Ellen is currently a Stanford media fellow. 

We asked Mary Ellen a few questions about the role of citizen science in our communities:

What’s the most important message you want readers to take away from your book?

I want people to understand that we have to save nature, and we have the tools to do it. Each of us plays an incomparable and integral part in this effort, and participating as a citizen scientist can be a deeply satisfying way to connect with the cycle of life.

One of my bete noirs is how little people understand about ecology. We can’t heal or restore nature or even understand how that needs to happen if we don’t know something about how biotic life functions. I focus mostly on California in my book (with significant forays around the country and the world), and I tell the story of what has happened with nature here through a historical lens. I write about how things were going between species and geography before the Spanish made “first contact” in 1769, changed everything, and set us up on the disastrous path we’ve been on. It’s important to know that humans can be positive actors here, and we can learn from the past.

In your experience, what sort of feelings do you walk away with after having volunteered for a citizen science program?

I feel good every single time I go out on a citizen science expedition. But more than that, my experience deepens over time. I’ve participated in the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory Hawk Watch for five years now, and in addition to getting to know the hawks (and my fellow citizen scientists), I’ve also felt my sense of place become more nuanced. I feel myself in space – up on Hawk Hill, eyes trained on the sky. I feel myself in time – not only in the August-November hawk migration, but in the long time frame. The hawks I see each year are the fledglings, the young ones, and their ancestors made this migration for perhaps hundreds of thousands of years. In counting the hawks, I help protect subsequent generations. So there I am in the present, but embedded in evolution with its sight lines disappearing into the past and extending into the future. "Endless forms, most beautiful," Darwin called it.

What do you hope your book will accomplish?

I hope people will explore the natural world, with consequence, participating in projects that can have real conservation impacts.  Through my personal journey, I hope people will get a glimmer of the richness to be experienced in engaging with this gorgeous panoply of life out there.

How can we best get people involved and engaged in citizen science programs?

One thing I think about all the time is the need to talk not only to those people who are already sold on nature and saving it, but people in faith groups, involved in social justice issues, in women’s reproductive rights, etc.  All those “causes” have a foundation in nature. When nature takes a hit, humanity does too. It’s all connected.  So really, everybody should be doing citizen science. Tell them so!